Talking politics

Latour, Bruno 2003. What if we Talked Politics a Little? Contemporary Political Theory 2: 143-165.

Complaints about a loss of interest in politics are heard all over. But what if the famous 'crisis of representation' stems simply from a new misunderstanding of the exact nature of this type of representation? As if, in recent years, we had begun to expect it to provide a form of fidelity, exactitude or truth that is totally impossible. As if talking politics were becoming a foreign language gradually depriving us of the ability to express ourselves. Could it be possible to forget politics? Far from being a universal competency of the 'political animal', might it not be a form of life so fragile that we could document its progressive appearance and disappearance? This is the hypothesis that I would like to explore in this paper. (Latour 2003: 143)
As a person who has lost interest in (at least local) politics, I find this relevant. In the 'crisis of representation' there is no specification of which type of representation is under discussion - it could be any type of representation; so it should read as 'a new misunderstanding of the nature of representation'. Perhaps faithful, exact and truthful representation, i.e. purely referential representation is as narrow as 'genuine or verifiable statements about the structure of the universe', and what talking politics really accomplishes is more phatic. The fragility of political talk reminds me of the fragility of the middle class, i.e. how it's a side-effect of capitalism that hasn't always existed. Perhaps political talk is just a side-effect of contemporary society and does fluctuate along with types of government, for example.
The idea can be formulated simply: by attempting to explain politics in terms of something else, we might have lost its specificity and have consequently forgotten to maintain its own dynamics, letting it fall into disuse. To retrieve the invaluable effectiveness of political talk, we need to start with the idea that, as Margaret Thatcher so forcefully put it, 'society doesn't exist'. If it does not exist, we have to make it exist, but in order to do so we need the means to do so. Politics is one of those means. (Latour 2003: 143)
In short, politics is one of the means of constituting society.
The recent resurrection of Gabriel Tarde allows a sharper contrast between two diametrically opposed types of sociology: that which assumes that the problem of the constitution of society has been solved, and that which studies the fragile and temporary construction of social aggregates. The former, a descendant of Emile Durkheim, uses social explanations to explain why some political forms of coordination are so sturdy. I call this type 'sociology of the social'. The latter type I call 'sociology of association' or 'of translation'. When political sociology sets out to explain politics through society, it renders politics superficial and replaceable. By contrast, when the other political sociology strives to explain the very existence of social aggregates through political discourse, that discourse immediately becomes irreplaceable. In the former instance, if we were to lose politics we would not lose much; in the latter, we would lose all means of social articulation - at least for all the associations in which the 'us' and 'they' is in question. (Latour 2003: 143-144)
Phatics undoubtedly approaches sociology of association.
It is clear that politics, like science, law or religion, forms heterogeneous institutions which simultaneously belong to all enunciation regimes. However, precisely, I would for the moment like to suspend any definition of institutions, subjects, genres or political agents likely to bind us to a certain type of content, and rather to focus on a regime of talk, a particular manner of speech. One can be a member of Parliament and not talk in a political way. Conversely, one can be at home with one's family, in an affocie, at work, and start talking politically about some issue or other even if none of one's words have any apparent link with the political sphere. (Latour 2003: 144-145)
It is as if Latour is here trying to establish the political function of speech.
Why do we regret that politicians 'don't tell the truth'? Why do we demand that they be 'more transparent'? Why do we want 'less distance between representatives and those whom they represent'? Even more absurd, why do we wish that 'politicians wouldn't change their minds all the time', 'wouldn't turn their coats for the slightest reason'? These demands, repeated throughout the press like a complaint, a rumbling, a shout or, rather, like a mort, are good sense in appearance only, for they all amount to judging the conditions of felicity of one regime of talk in relation to those of another. The denigration of political talk would never be possible without this ignorance of its key, of its own peculiar tone, of its spin as English-language newspapers so accurately (albeit, mockingly) put it. (Latour 2003: 147)
I think it's because no-one likes lies and deceit, especially from a person in power. We demand transparency because there is corruption. We want less distance because politicians have the habit of serving loyalties other than those they represent. And we demand stability because politicians are voted into office often on the basis of promises, and people are justifiably disappointed when those promises are broken. Imagine being in a personal relationship with a person who is a compulsivie liar, hides and obfuscates, remains distant and aloof, and goes where the wind blows. It would be difficult to remain in a relationship with such a person. But the political institution enables deceitful, corrupt politicians to stay in office. This paper seems to presume that this is just the way things are and that's how it's supposed to be.
Demanding that scientists tell the truth directly, with no laboratory, no instruments, no equipment, no processing of data, no writing of articles, no conferences or debates, at once, extemporaneously, naked, for all to see, without stammering or babbling, would be senseless. (Latour 2003: 147)
Why do we have popular science writers? Why do we have TED talks?
If we turn from the demand for transparent information and focus a little more directly on the conditions of felicity peculiar to political discourse, we discover an entirely different demand for truthfulness. Political discourse appears to be untruthful only in contrast with other forms of truth. In and for itself it discriminates truth from falsehood with stupefying precision. It is not indifferent to truth, as it is so unjustly accused of being; it simply differs from all the other regimes in its judgment of truth. What then is its touchstone, its litmus test? It aims to allow to exist that which would not exist without it: the public as a temporarily defined totality. Either some means has been provided to trace a group into existence, and the talk has been truthful; or no group has been traced, and it is in vain that people have talked. (Latour 2003: 147-148)
Instances spring to mind of politicians claiming to represent people, either all or most of the people. Even Bernie Sanders does this when he says that his views are those of most Americans.
But he who says 'I understand you', 'We're one big family', 'We won't tolerate this any more' or 'Our firm must conquer a bigger market share', those who chant 'All together, all together, all!', would be unable to withstand a true/false judgment of the same type. Yet they know what the difference is between true and false statements, but they detect that truth or that falseness not in the presence or absence of a reference, but rather - and we will understand this soon - in an entirely new phenomenon: the resumption or suspension of the continuous work of definition and materialization of the group that this talk intends to trace. Anything that extends it is true; anything that interrupts it is false. (Latour 2003: 148)
This is not entirely new. This is the conative function, specifically in its "vocative" aspect (something like Althusser's interpellation).
From the classical point of view I am auto-nomous (as opposed to hetero-nomous) when the law (nomos) is both what I produce through the expression of my will and what I conform to through the manifestation of my docility. As soon as this coincidence is broken, I leave the state of freedom and enter into that of dissidence, revolt, dissatisfaction or domination. (Latour 2003: 150)
Finally a definition of autonomy.


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